The cachet of that trophy and a litany of other achievements have pushed No. 4 Virginia into the conversation with other blue bloods, several analysts said, where the expectation is to regularly contend for the national title.
“Not that you’re going to win one every year, because nobody does that,” said Jay Bilas, ESPN’s lead college basketball analyst. “But everybody knows you can, and so you’re just thought of in a different category, and that may be right or wrong. I don’t know what that is about our sports culture that does that, but once you do that, you’re up on a higher shelf in the game.”
Bilas cited Duke, where he started for most of four seasons, including the1985-86 season when Coach Mike Krzyzewski reached his first NCAA tournament final. The Blue Devils subsequently advanced to the Final Four three more times before winning the school’s first national championship in 1991.
Virginia had not come nearly that close to an NCAA title under Bennett before 2019, but he had rebooted the program to national prominence after finishing first in the ACC during the regular season four times and winning the conference tournament in 2014 and 2018.
The deepest the Cavaliers had advanced in the NCAA tournament since Bennett arrived in Charlottesville in 2009 was the region final four years ago, where they lost to Syracuse, 68-62, after a second-half collapse in which Virginia, a No. 1 seed, failed to protect a 15-point lead with 9½ minutes to play. And, of course, Virginia’s historic loss to No. 16 seed Maryland Baltimore County in the 2018 NCAA tournament left the Cavaliers seeking answers.
But an 85-77 overtime win over Texas Tech in the NCAA tournament final in 2019 drastically altered the perception of Virginia, which this season features several starters with a championship ring in addition to a high-profile transfer and several notable freshmen.
“I think when you get over the hump and win one like that, it puts a spotlight on all your other accomplishments,” Bilas said. “When you get to the Final Four or win ACC championships, or whatever league you’re in, at first everybody appreciates it and loves it, but then it becomes, ‘Well, but you haven’t done the next thing.’ ”
For the Cavaliers, the assignment becomes winning another national championship, which would vault them into the company of some of the sport’s most storied programs, including Duke, North Carolina and Villanova, each of which has won at least two titles since 2000.
The journey begins Wednesday with a game against Towson in a Thanksgiving tournament in Uncasville, Conn. The arena is hosting 45 games over 11 days in a controlled environment dubbed “Bubbleville,” mimicking the NBA’s Florida bubble. The Cavaliers originally were to face Maine in their opener until Towson became a replacement opponent Tuesday.
Virginia also was scheduled to play Florida on Friday until the Gators announced the school is pausing its basketball program because of a virus outbreak. The schedule on Virginia’s website was updated Tuesday to add San Francisco as a replacement for the Gators.
No matter the opponent, Virginia will be a top target for every team it plays.
“Look out for them this year because I think they’re piecing together one of their perfect mixes,” said Luke Hancock, an ACC Network analyst who won a national championship with Louisville in 2013, “where it’s older guys and young talent, young pieces to the puzzle.”
Virginia’s undisputed leader is junior point guard Kihei Clark, who scrambled to collect a loose ball and delivered the pass to Mamadi Diakite for the game-tying jumper at the buzzer in the 2019 NCAA tournament region final against Purdue. The Cavaliers went on to win in overtime, 80-75, to secure their first berth in the Final Four since 1984.
Also on the national championship team was center Jay Huff, a projected starter this season who started 18 of 30 games in 2019-20. The senior averaged career highs in points (8.5), rebounds (6.2) and blocks (2.0) as Virginia closed by winning eight in a row and 11 of 12 before the pandemic scrapped the postseason.
Significant additions this season include Sam Hauser, a transfer from Marquette who sat out last season, and freshman Jabri Abdur-Rahim, the 2018-19 Gatorade New Jersey state player of the year and son of former NBA player Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
“I think Virginia winning the national championship, and this year they’ll be one of the favorites, of course, more recruits are going to want to come to that school,” said Carlos Boozer, an ACC Network analyst who won a national championship at Duke in 2001, “and play for Tony Bennett.”
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